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The process of building a company website – part 2: Choice of technology and contractor

12-05-2010, Category Web Design


Previous part of the article:
part 1: Planning

Choice of technology

Entrusting an interactive agency with the task of choosing the right technology is only seemingly the best solution. Having received no particular details from the client, the contractor would feel fully free in designing the website. However, such a solution might mean that the agency would choose the best technology for itself and not for its customer.

The key decision to make is to choose the appropriate operating system – Windows or Linux. As far as PCs are concerned the situation is rather clear (see usage share of operating systems) but utterly different rules apply to web servers.

Windows vs. Linux

The difference between Windows-based servers and those using Linux lies mainly in the costs. Microsoft licenses and certificates are quite expensive, as a result of which also programmers who specialize in Microsoft technologies (e.g. ASP, .Net) need to be much better paid than those who use Linux technologies (e.g. PHP). Moreover, Linux itself can be obtained free of charge (at least the majority of its distributions). Briefly speaking, the costs of implementation and maintenance will be much higher for Windows than for Linux.

As far as system possibilities, their stability, effectiveness and safety in both systems are concerned, opinions tend to vary. Personally I am a supporter of Linux, which is an Open Source system. Thanks to this fact thousands of specialists all over the world work on it and not only a few of employees within a single company. As a result, the system offers instant updates and patches as soon as new viruses or trojans appear, which in the case of Windows would take a very long time.

However, it might be worth taking Windows into consideration in some situations. If the entire company infrastructure is based on this system and the central database already has its web servers, implementing Linux is pointless. Especially considering that in many cases the website will later be integrated with other applications within the company network. In a other situation when the company has a Windows-based infrastructure but no web server, IT outsourcing using Linux might be the best solution. However, discussing this is a topic for another article.

CMS

A second vital decision to make regarding the technology is the choice of CMS (Content Management System). The choice must be wise and conscious because its consequences will directly be experienced for a few subsequent years.
The wide range of possible solutions is determined by the previous decision regarding the operating system. Very few CMS systems have both Linux and Windows versions.

In terms of type of licensing CMS systems can be divided into 3 main groups:
a) free of charge/non-commercial – Open Source (e.g. eZ Publish, Joomla, Drupal);
b) commercial and widely accessible (e.g. DotNetNuke, SharePoint, Sitefinity);
c) commercial, created by particular interactive agencies (their own solutions)

You will find more information on CMS systems in another article.

Choice of contractor

A company website ought to be built by an interactive agency.
Of course there are also other solutions – it can be created by one of the company’s employees or by a freelancer. But saving money on the designer might simply not be worth it.
First of all, in an interactive agency a team of at least three people works on a particular website. No company employee nor freelancer can at the same time be a skilled graphic designer, an excellent programmer and an experienced e-marketer.
Second of all, an agency is able to take complex care of the website – apart from designing it, it also provides such services as hosting and administration, handles promotional activities, etc.
And last but not least – cooperating with an interactive agency eliminates the risk of losing technical support as would be the case if the in-house web designer or freelancer finds himself a new job.

List of agencies

When compiling the list of potential contractors it is a good idea to start with those which have been recommended to us by someone else. Every marketer has friends among other marketers and it is worthwhile to ask them if they could perhaps recommend a particular agency.
Other companies’ visually attractive websites could be another source of information. The link and contact details of the designer can usually be found in the footer or source code of the website.

It might not always be possible to compile a list of approximately 10 interactive agencies this way. If that is the case, the list should be filled with agencies simply found with Google or some on-line directories.

Short-list

Once all chosen agencies have been thoroughly reviewed and compared the list needs to be narrowed down.
As far as more complex projects or tenders are concerned, an RFI (Request For Information) needs to be sent to the agency before submitting the final query in order to obtain more information on a particular project. In an RFI we can e.g. ask about the agency’s previous projects for a particular customer from a given industry or about projects developed with the use of a particular technology. On the basis of the answer receive we end up with a short-list comprising 3-5 agencies, who go through to the next stage.

Brief and debriefing

The more detailed the brief or RFP (Request for Proposal) which we send to the interactive agency, the less time lost on answering different additional questions from agencies.
The previous part of this article should be helpful in planning a detailed brief. The key is simply to complement the information about the future website with information on our company (characteristics, offer, customers) and such important issues as the available budget and deadlines.
Should the project require confidentiality a Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) can be signed between the client and contractor before submitting the brief. Interactive agencies are used to this so if such need arises they should not cause any trouble.

Having received and analyzed the brief, the interactive agency will usually prepare additional questions in order to clarify some information. Answering such questions, either via mail or at a meeting, is called debriefing.

Offers and presentations

Usually agencies prepare their offers in the form of extensive PDF, DOC or sometimes PPT documents. A good proposal begins with a statement how the agency understands customer’s needs, which is then followed by a concrete solution. The offer should contain all necessary information from the customer’s point of view – a solution for navigation, initial project of the structure, list of all functions, description of the technologies, schedule and – of course – the price. Company details and references should also be included.
The offer can be presented at a customer site upon request. This might be a good idea for more complex projects because then both parties are usually interested in taking some time to talk things over personally. The agency needs to calculate the necessary travel time and the customer needs to reserve approximately 2 hours per meeting.
Once the offer is presented the agency’s employees must be prepared to answer questions.
The agency should also deliver the presentation and offer details to the customer via e-mail on the same day.

Graphic design in the offer

Some marketers require offers to include a draft of the website’s graphic design (sometimes even a few drafts) as something which would facilitate the choice of the best web designer. They tend to be very surprised when they discover that some agencies declines to provide such a draft or decides to withdraw from the tender.
Preparing a good graphic design draft can be very time-consuming for the graphic designer and thus entail additional costs for the agency. If an agency happens to have designers who are free at a given moment or if winning a certain tender is important to them (e.g. because it is a large project or the agency would like to have a certain brand in their portfolio) then it will take the risk and proceed with the draft. However, mentioning such a requirement in the proposal might result in losing the possibility of cooperating with some good agencies. The reason why agencies publish their portfolios on their websites is so that potential customers could become familiar with their graphic designers’ creative capabilities.

On the other hand, companies increasingly tend to pay money to short-listed agencies for their participation in the tender. In such cases preparing a few graphic design drafts should not be a problem.

Decision

The final choice of the contractor should not be difficult. Interactive agencies vary significantly. Prices, work speed, development processes, technologies, customer approach – all these criteria are taken into account and therefore the probability of ending up with 2 very similar offers is very low.
Well-organized marketers can prepare themselves a table of criteria where every feature is rated in terms of importance. In an official open tender such a list of criteria and the levels of importance is obligatory for the tenderers to know. Personally I believe that everything should be clearly stated also in the case of ordinary tenders.

Agreement

The final agreement is usually drawn up as a result of adjusting the contractor’s offer. I advise not to sign the agency’s initial proposal straight away because it may represent mainly the its own interests and not the client’s.

What should we pay special attention to as regards the content of the agreement:

  • scope of performance (including the specification in the form of an attachment)
  • schedule (at least certain deadlines to be met)
  • contractor non-liability if the company causes certain problems (e.g. if it fails to deliver the source material on time, accepts changes not quickly enough or changes its mind too often then this might affect the delivery date)
  • technical conditions (eg. guarantee of operating properly in most common browsers)
  • determining the personal data administrator (if the website will collect user data then the client is the database administrator)
  • transferring copyright protected content (the agreement should contain an appropriate clause)
  • CMS license
  • conditions of payment (implementation time is counted in months, therefore an advance payment of 20% of the amount would be appropriate)
  • guarantee (law provides for a 12-month guarantee but agencies very often include a clause saying that the guarantee expires in case of third party interference – which is understandable)
  • confidentiality (the agreement usually replaces all previous arrangements so certain issues need to be explicitly specified in the Non Disclosure Agreement).

An important remark regarding the schedule: here agencies do not always take into account the time spent on their customer’s tests and entering the content itself. This means that the deadline for a given project does not necessarily have to be the moment when the website can be published. Therefore, it is a good idea to save some extra time for testing and making possible modifications (at least 2 weeks), as well as entering the content itself (which depends only on its amount).

Project start-up

Once the agreement is signed but before proceeding with the project a working meeting can be organized where some additional details can be discussed. However, if the specification attached to the agreement is detailed enough such a meeting is not necessary. Instead, all doubts are cleared via e-mail or phone calls.

Interactive agencies always use a special software for managing the project and tracking the customer’s suggestions and modifications. In a vast majority of the cases only the agency uses this software to apply the suggestions received via e-mail or phone. It is rather uncommon for customers to use this application directly for entering and tracking their added comments.

This article continues in the third part – “Implementation“.

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The process of building company website – part 1: Planning

What should be done prior to designing a company website? What decisions should be made before inviting tenders? What information...

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